Drones Are the New Pets.com

There are many obstacles to overcome before books will be flying to us 30 minutes after we order them

drone
Credit: Don McCullough/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Everyone, from Amazon to Google to Martha Stewart, has been lauding the benefits we’ll all reap by the use of drones, and there’s a gold rush on to cash in on the technology. But beware: The trend has all the hallmarks of a bubble-in-the-making, the contemporary equivalent of that symbol of the excess of the millennial tech bubble, the now-defunct Pets.com.

The latest publicity blitz about commercial drones came in late August, when it was revealed that Google’s Project Wing has been working on drone delivery for the past two years. The company recently performed more than 30 drone flights in Australia to deliver products such as a water bottle, dog treats, chocolate bars and a first aid kit to a farm.

That follows Amazon’s announcement late last year that it planned to launch a fleet of drones called Prime Air that would deliver goods within a half-hour of being ordered. Amazon promises on a Web page about the service: “One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today.”

As for Martha Stewart, her interest in drones is quite a bit narrower. In an essay in Time Magazine, she praised her new personal drone, lauding its ability to take aerial photos of her 153-acre spread in tony Bedford, N.Y., including its horse paddocks and “long allée of boxwood.” She was particularly pleased that, “An aerial shot of the vegetable garden looked very much like my Peter Rabbit marzipan embellished Easter cake.”

The funny thing is that, while few of us have vegetable gardens that look like marzipan, Stewart’s use of her drone comes a lot closer to what is likely to become commonplace than either Amazon’s or Google’s.

Meanwhile, drone companies are highly sought after. Earlier this year Google bought Titan, a small maker of solar-powered drones for an undisclosed sum after Facebook unsuccessfully tried to buy it for $60 million. Facebook instead hired away staff from drone maker Ascenta and space agency NASA for its own drone plans.

So what’s wrong with Google’s and Amazon’s visions? Why won’t small, unmanned aircraft one day be dropping tubes of toothpaste and dog food into people’s yards across the continental United States? After all, drones have been used for years to undertake battlefield surveillance and kill terrorists.

But killing terrorists with drones is one thing, and delivering packages with them is another thing entirely. And it will prove harder to set up a package delivery system with drones than to use them for battle.

The problem isn’t a technical one. Instead, it has to do with safety, regulatory requirements, potential misuse, government bureaucracy and people’s fear of the unknown. Because of the uncertainties and potential dangers involving fleets of drones clogging U.S. airspace, the FAA has essentially banned commercial use of drones until it develops regulations, saying in a statement, “Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time.”

Translation: Don’t expect those regulations anytime soon.

NASA, meanwhile, is developing a new air traffic control system specifically for drones and other aircraft that fly close to the ground. It has to take into account weather in ways the current system does not, because drones are so light that wind can easily blow them around into buildings or other drones — or drop them to the ground and injure people.

Parimal H. Kopardekar, the NASA official in charge of the program, told The New York Times, “One at a time you can make them work and keep them safe. But when you have a number of them in operation in the same airspace, there is no infrastructure to support it.”

Other issues that must be ironed out include hacking, hijacking and making sure drones don’t fly near airports. And how about privacy issues? Drones will require cameras for navigation and delivery — will they be allowed to use the video of your home that they capture during deliveries to your house?

Because of all this, commercial use of drones is a long time away — and their use in delivery may never come.

In 2013, a tongue-in-cheek video made by Domino’s showed a “DomiCopter” drone delivering pizza into a customer’s waiting hands. It went viral, gaining 1.6 million views. But it was only a spoof.

“We did not and are not testing drone delivery,” a Domino’s spokesman told The New York Times. “Given the fact that these things have spinning blades, could be stolen, shot at or batted like piñatas, we didn’t think the idea would ‘fly’ here in the U.S.”

So will commercial drones be around for the long term? Yes, they will, just as e-commerce still exists, allowing you to easily order pet supplies online despite the notorious Pets.com flameout. But they’ll most likely be used for purposes like agriculture (to check on fields of soybeans or corn if not marzipan-like vegetable gardens) rather than flying you a bag of Cheetos when you need one.

This story, "Drones Are the New Pets.com" was originally published by Computerworld.

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